A Geek in Indonesia by Tim Hannigan

For anyone wanting to move beyond tired travel guide formulas, award-winning travel writer and Indonesia expert Tim Hannigan has finally given Southeast Asia’s biggest country its proper due. A Geek in Indonesia provides a hip, streetwise introduction to an increasingly popular travel destination. From the author’s extensive first-hand experience gained from living many years in Indonesia, this book is packed with lively articles on everything from office and cafe culture to food and dating rituals.

Read this book if you want to learn about films that feature transsexual superheroes, jazz musician who play Bali Hindu-infused compositions, the thriving busker city street culture, pop group members who are female versions of the Ramones, Surabaya’s numerous motorbike communities, where to hire vintage bicycles in Jakarta, vulgar popular soap operas, Indonesia’s bald male version of Oprah Winfrey, the Indonesian blogosphere and the best examples of Indonesia’s filthy gutter press. The topics are Java-centric and focus only intermittently and fleetingly on the myriad cultures of the outer islands.

With passages that could be lifted right out of Rolling Stone magazine, Hannigan is a glib and hip music writer. In a book meant for the general reader, Hannigan devotes a substantial 13 pages to all manner of Indonesian music. No modern treatment of Indonesia delves so deeply into the contemporary music scene than in the chapter “The Musical Archipelago” which covers dangdut divas, jazz musicians, as well as the traditional musical forms gamelan, kroncong, Balinese polyphonic ensembles, Sundanese vocalists and strange ethnic instruments from the remote Maluku Islands. One delightful section pays homage to the ragged troubadours that serenade stopped cars in Java’s gridlocked cities – the foot soldiers of Indonesia’s musical army. Even the Indonesian punk scene is accorded three whole pages, complete with a playlist of the best of each type of music. Did you know that there are dozens of Guinness-swilling, fiddle-playing, shamrock-toting, Flogging Molly-style Celtic punk bands in Java?

The author has immersed himself thoroughly in all things Indonesian. Written in an irreverent, youthful tone and offering clear explanations, Hannigan is equally conversant writing about the arcane Arabic origins of Indonesian music, whether it be the weird extreme cuisines of the Outer Islands, historic volcanic eruptions from a volcanologists perspective or astute critiques of Indonesian Indie cinema. Within its pages you’ll come face to face with the reality of 21st-century Indonesia-from weddings, entertainment, travel and local fashion bloggers to the world’s most avid tweeters, controversial feminist activists, rock pioneers and scandalous celebrities.

Tim Hannigan was born in the coal mining town of Cornwall in the UK’s far west, the climactic, physical and cultural antithesis of his literary focus of Indonesia and Southeast Asia. His features, travel articles and images appear regularly in newspapers and magazines in Asia, the Middle East, North America and the UK. Hannigan has spent a good portion of his career co-editing travel guidebooks to destinations including Nepal, India, Myanmar and Bali before graduating to highly readable narrative histories of the region. His Raffles and the British Invasion of Java won the 2013 John Brooks Award, and he has edited and wrote new chapters for Willard Hanna’s classic history of Bali, now republished as A Brief History of Bali (Tuttle, 2016).

But Geek in Indonesia is nothing like Hannigan’s previous works. As part of a series which began with A Geek in Japan in 2011, and which now also covers Thailand, Korea and China, Hannigan has written his very own version in the Geek series. The Geek concept encourages first-person address, idiosyncratic personal opinion and anecdotes, with no requirement to comply with some grating corporate house style. He was still able to do the fun stuff of guidebook writing – the chapters on history, food and culture – but without the brain-melting tasks of adding and re-checking hotel and restaurant listings. He was also free to cover whatever he liked to write about. So, in the same way that Hector Garcia devoted many pages of Geek in Japan to manga and anime, Hannigan is able to rhapsodizes about Indonesian dangdut pop music and sinetron soap operas to his heart’s content.

Though not a guidebook, the “Indonesia at Play” chapter on travel offers useful advice: never go to a hill station on a weekend, always bring back from day trips or overseas trips oleh-oleh (souvenirs) for Indonesian friends, use the English-language travel blog Indo.hoy and the Wego metasearch engine to find off the beaten track adventures. Even as a travel guide, the book is quite adequate and serviceable. The brief but excellent “From T-Land to G-Land” is a pithy survey of Indonesia’s best surf spots in less than 300 words as is the masterly roundup Indonesia’s most popular volcanoes to climb.

Don’t be deceived by the graphic novel appearance that disguises a work of deep scholarship, understanding, respect and great affection for the country. It’s in fact a mini illustrated encyclopedia of Indonesia’s cultural history. Hannigan, a firmly entrenched professional writer of the new millennium, possesses a natural affinity with a scrapbook-like layout using sidebars, highlighted text, multi images on each page and a mixture of typefaces of different colors and sizes. Turning the pages is akin to watching a slow-motion video.

Space limitations required to condense the essence of a 5000-km-long nation inhabited by 260 million people into a 144-page book requires substantive editing. In the chapter on film “Tropical Celluloid Dreams,” the classic black & white era of early pre-war and post-independence film is necessarily skipped over. Nevertheless, this 3-page chapter, as well as the section on the current state of Indonesian commercial TV, are all that the newcomer to Indonesia needs to initially know.

I don’t understand why the book’s primary users are geeks, defined in the Urban Dictionary as people you picked on in high school and wind up working for as an adult. I think a more accurate title should be Tim Hannigan‘s Indonesia as the work represents this writer’s very own take on the country, a memoir/travelogue to a place that he loves, full of personal reminisces, insights and strange encounters. Hannigan is so well established an authority on Indonesia that he has earned the right to his own quirky, subjective view.

We are blessed that such an ambitious work was taken on by a keenly observant, first-class writer, who is also a dedicated outdoorsman who has experienced firsthand many of the country’s natural wonders. He is enthusiastic, well-informed and possesses a social conscience. Illustrated with hundreds of images, the captions are precise and accurate. I’m not aware of any other more visually-appealing, in-depth and ambitious survey of modern Indonesian culture and society. Like no other, the book accomplishes a sweeping, condensed yet satisfying and shrewd snapshot of this kaleidoscopic island nation in both pictures and words without succumbing to over the top superlatives. Though it would be a gargantuan task, I fervently hope that it will be updated every 2-3 years.

Geek in Indonesia is not for those with a passing, lukewarm interest in Indonesia but for people who intend to stay awhile and need a crash course on the inner fiber of the country’s culture and society. It’s not a practical, comprehensive travel guide for the curious but the perfect introduction for the newly arrived or relocated expat, the academic doing prolonged field study, the new investor or diplomat and would be especially meaningful for long-time Indonesianists, 2nd and 3rd year university students enrolled in Southeast Asian and Indonesian language studies.

A Geek in Indonesia: Discover the Land of Komodo Dragons, Balinese Healers and Dangdut Music by Tim Hannigan, Tuttle Publishing 2018, ISBN-978-080-484-7100, paperback, 144 pages, dimensions 20 cm x 25.5 cm.


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